I saw my first silver coin in the spring of my twelfth year. A silver lady of Magnimar, it both horrified and fascinated me.
I was visiting my Aunt Lyssa in Wolf’s Ear, a springtime custom I had adopted very early in life. Widowed, with three daughters, she owned the village’s general store. It was a small shop, dimly lit, with a constant smell of mice and dust. I thought it one of the most fascinating places in all the world. Lining its walls and filling its shelves was an assortment of tools, home furnishings, curios, seeds, clothes, cloths and containers. In retrospect, there was little there that was not in greater abundance on my father’s farm, but within the walls of my aunt’s store, each of those otherwise mundane items acquired an unexplainable mystique that charmed and captivated my young imagination.
Despite the years that have passed, I remember the circumstances of that day well. My aunt had been called away to ‘The Long Tooth,’ the tavern across the road. My cousin Lytessa, oldest of the daughters, was busy with her pottery. Cousin Vyvian was watching children while their mothers washed clothes at the river,. Thola, a year younger than myself and well favored by the Lady, was taking lessons with old Mother Crow. Which left me, to my great delight, the responsibility of minding the store.
Normally on such occasions, of which there were few, little was required of me beyond sitting upon the stool behind the counter. There I would pass the time playing stones or casting dice. Yet, on the day in question, there was a customer. I knew, before he even opened the door, that he was from “other parts,” an outsider. He smelled of horse and iron and salt. He did not smell of the village. He wore a sword, uncommon in Wolf’s Ear where most of the men preferred the ax, and under a silken surcoat sparkled a shirt of shiny mail.
“Greetings young madam,” he said genially as he closed the door behind him and took in his surroundings.
I muttered a greeting but not loudly. I found his smell too curious; his appearance too exotic. I’m sure he thought me a wide-eyed rustic, which would not have been far from the truth. I wondered where he was from and why he was in the village. I wondered if the elders knew he was there and who had been assigned to watch him. Every child in and around Wolf’s Ear is taught, from a young age, not to trust strangers. They are cautioned to be neither hostile nor friendly. These lessons, and more besides, were impressed upon me until I knew them by rote. Yet in this, my first encounter with an outsider, they did me little good. In the suddenness of the moment my thoughts were confused. I was at a loss as to how I should behave.
“Have you such a thing as lamp oil,” he asked.
I stared at him for a moment.
He repeated gently, “Lamp oil?”
I pointed to the appropriate section of the store.
“Much obliged,” said he before proceeding to rummage through the contents of the shelves. A few moments later he placed four pints of oil and two lanterns on the counter.
“That’ll do it,” he said and then a moment later, espying a rather fine horse’s saddle-blanket on the other side of the store, he amended, “No, I’ll take that as well,” and fetching it, he placed the saddle-blanket next to the oil.
By this time, I had remembered myself enough to know I should be asking for money. With what I hoped was a curt smile, I quickly tallied up the items in my head.
“One angel and ten copper stars,” I said, having properly deduced the equivalent of a hundred and ten stars. Naturally, the village was too small to mint its own coins. We made due with currency from Magnimar. Sometimes we saw coins out of Riddleport, but only rarely. The star was Magnimar’s copper coin.
“That sounds about right,” he said reaching into the coin purse on his belt. He pulled out two coins and laid them upon the wooden counter before me.
The first, an egg shaped disk of gold stamped with the image of an angel on one side, was a coin I had seen often enough. Though most day-to-day transactions involved the more common copper star, golden angels were still relatively ubiquitous.
It was the second coin that caused my heart to skip a beat and my breath to still. It was a long, thin ovoid: the bust of some young woman on its face. It shone a metallic grayish white against the polished wood of the countertop. I had never seen silver but I recognized it at once. I found it strangely attractive and not a little repulsive. Though this may sound foolish to some, I was suddenly deathly afraid and I am sure the color quite drained from my face.
“That should do. Correct?” said my customer as he gathered his things together. I looked up at him briefly, unsure what to say. My eyes returned to the coin on the counter. I opened my mouth to speak but words failed me. And then, with a smile and a jovial wave, the man was gone and I was alone in the shop once more. The two coins remained, untouched, on the shop counter.
Hesitantly I reached out and prodded the silver coin. It did not bite but I found the very act of touching it unnatural. I wondered what I should do with the thing. My stomach clinched unpleasantly. I was quite at a loss.
When my aunt returned she found me still staring at the coin.
“What is that!” she exclaimed almost at once.
“You had a customer, an outsider,” I supplied.
“But what is that doin’ there?” She did not sound at all happy with me.
I stammered, “I didn’t,… I…Well, ‘e bought some goods and was leavin’ this as payment.”
“Daft girl, ya should have charged ‘im less. Or more. Ya can always charge an outsider more. Next time tell them the cost is two angels if need be. The very idea of a silver lady in my shop.”
She wrinkled her nose expressively, her hands upon her hips. She contemplated the silver coin for a moment and then she looked at me. A cold, cruel smile awoke upon her face and for a moment she looked remarkably like her sister, my mother.
“I’m done with needin’ ya today,” she said, “Thank ye for minding the store. I suppose ya deserve ta be paid.”
However I had behaved when confronted with the outsider, I was not a slow-witted young girl and I knew immediately what she was thinking.
“There’s no need for payment, Aunty.”
“Of course there is girl. Yer after deservin’ it right enough. Be holdin’ out yer hand there.”
I knew better than to argue and gingerly I stretched out my upturned palm.
With a deft movement of her hand, the silver coin moved from the top of the counter and into my palm. My aunt seemed to find the touch of it as distasteful as I did, for she held it no longer than she had to in order to give it to me. The coin felt heavy and unpleasant to hold but it did not burn me as I feared it might.
“Good girl,” said Aunt Lyssa as she closed my hand around the silver lady, “Now ye be takin’ that thing wit’ you as a lesson. Don’t be acceptin’ any more silver in my store.”
There were, in Wolf’s Ear, numerous children constantly being born, but I had been conceived during the ‘Time o’ troubles wit’ Magnimar.’ There were only two others of my approximate age and, whenever I visited the village, it was these two with whom I spent the most time. The first was my younger cousin Thola, whom I have already mentioned. Though I was always a little jealous of her, for from birth she had been blessed, we normally got on well enough, even as children.
The other, Humruf, was a gangly lad three months my senior. My aunt disapproved of him. I suspect this was primarily because neither he nor his kin were that particular about fleas. Though I didn’t fully understand it, I knew he had a crush on me. This, coupled with the fact that I was taller than he, made him quite acceptable in my eyes for he would readily agree to any proposal I put forth. Furthermore, he was able to fit into spaces far too small for me, and, even at twelve, he was already an accomplished little thief. Often my cousin and I would send him to visit various homes, after which we would escape the village with a basket of pilfered food upon which we would spend the day feasting.
As Thola was still at her lessons, it was Humruf to whom I first showed my awful treasure. Upon leaving Aunt Lyssa’s store, I scoured the village for the boy, finding him at last behind a pile of logs eating a stolen sweet-bun. As it was a lonely spot, devoid of unwelcome eyes, I wasted no time in producing the dread coin.